This semester saw the first mainstage musical production at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) since 2013’s “Working: A Musical,” with the highly anticipated “Spring Awakening,” the musical. The show ran from March 1-4, with their Friday production unfortunately called off after the college was closed due to severe winds.
“Spring Awakening” was directed by Theater, Film, and Media Studies department (TFMS) professor Mark Rhoda and starred Moriah Austin-Brantly and Jacob Traver, both class of 2018, as the play’s male and female leads, Wendla Bergmann and Melchior Gabor.
The production is set in repressive 1890s Bavaria and follows Wendla, Melchior, and their other classmates — including Jake Jaffe, ’19, as Moritz Stiefel — as the young German adolescents make their first forays into teen angst, lust, and existential dread.
Wednesday’s opening night saw a more than fully-booked crowd: not a rarity for the free admission seen on the first night of TFMS productions, but after Friday’s cancellation, even the Saturday showing was fully sold out.
Audience reactions seemed to have fallen into two camps: those who knew “Spring Awakening’s” whole deal before they stepped into Bruce Davis Theater, and those who were caught a bit off guard.
For musical theater fans, the rock musical first performed in 2006 is no obscure pull out of Broadway history; it won eight Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical, and its revival in 2015 with the mostly deaf and hard-of-hearing cast of Deaf West Theatre received national acclaim.
But for the less Broadway-inclined, “Spring Awakening” has always been a bizarre sell. An alt-rock production based on a 19th century German play, centered around 14 and 15-year-olds discovering their sexualities and their parents’ failings for the first time. The show features elements of rape, child abuse, suicide, sexual sadism, and abortion, with a soundtrack falling somewhere between Radiohead and Green Day. One of its most celebrated songs (“The Bitch of Living”) is an anthem of teen masturbation, featuring lines like “We’ll work that silver magic / Then we’ll aim it at the wall.”
During that song in particular, Jake Jaffe, who stole every scene he was in with Mortiz’ neurotic energy, notably had to mime a sex act into the front row of the audience — where, on opening night, sat SMCM President Tuajuanda Jordan.
But though the show’s brazenness about all the painful awkwardness of adolescence may make some uncomfortable, it became a smash hit on Broadway for a reason. The music hits hard, with a particularly stellar performance by the band as led by Professor of Music Larry Vote. The opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me” and reprisal, sets the stage for the rest of the show, as the powerful vocals of Austin-Brantly, McKenna Johnson, Kyndall Rhaney, Rachael Meador and Kelsey Hancock transformed a pack of little girls in frilly period piece dresses into a modern-day girl group.
And there’s something captivating about witnessing Wendla, Martha, Melchior and Moritz, and all the other students, go through something so agonizing and so universal out in the open.
Bruce Davis Theater was set up for “Spring Awakening” in a way that emphasized that feeling of voyeurism — the normally high stands for seating were flattened out surrounding a small raised stage, putting the audience and cast on nearly the same eye-level. This left some in the audience complaining about blocked views and poor visibility, but along with the stares of the Edvard-Munch-inspired paintings hung high over the theater, emphasized the feeling that we were watching something private.
The young teens in the show don’t have the privilege of privacy, or basic information about their own bodies, as they are set up against the antagonism of the play’s willfully blind or malicious adults.
It takes some courage to strip down naked or mime masturbation in front of your college president, as it maybe takes any teenager to get through the awkward, transformative years of adolescence.
I thoroughly enjoyed the entire two-hour run of SMCM’s “Spring Awakening.” The show was a daring choice for the TFMS’ department’s first dive back into musicals after a five-year drought, and one that SMCM’s student actors and singers were well equipped to pull off. The male vocals of the night, in particular, were stellar, with stand-out performances from Mikey Rainey and Byron Dickerson in their parts in the “Boys” cast.
Kevin Glotfelty and Jeanette Warren, who played every adult male and female role in the play respectively, were funny or villainous as needed, donning red clown noses and teachers’ caps and gowns when they delivered remarks of doom over the main stage. Traver and Austin-Brantly had great chemistry, even in some of the show’s darker scenes.
JW Ruth and James Miller delivered great performances as the play’s representations of non-heterosexual teen discovery, a relationship that in most productions is played for comedy, as the cast discussed in the opening night Talk-Back.
Aside from some technical stumbles, some noticeable vocal failings with some of the cast, and the aforementioned cut-off view from the crowd, “Spring Awakening” was a captivating night of theater, and I hope not the last musical the school puts on for another five years.
Correction: Moriah Austin-Brantly’s name was previously misspelled as “Moirah.”